Because sales prices may vary, a "rock bottom" price for a week of basic meals is almost impossible. However, I do have some tips if you only have a few dollars of cash and a week to get through food-wise.
Tips for low-cost emergency food budget
- Scour your pantry, cabinets, fridge and freezer. Because we often stock up on sales or buy things we don't truly need, odds are that you have something in your pantry. Maybe you have a half a bag of flour and some baking powder, add in a dash of salt, tablespoon or two of sugar, some margarine and a cup of milk and you can make 12 baking powder biscuits (I like the King Arthur Flour recipe best, if you're searching online). Maybe you find a bag of peas or rice that you never took the time to cook. Maybe you find a can of fruit or a half pound of meat. Make a meal list using as many of these "pantry" items as you can before making your emergency list.
- Decide what grocery store to go to. If you are on such a limited budget, you are unlikely to be driving all over town to save $0.50 on a bag of Chex Mix. So decide on your store first. This decision can be easy or difficult depending on the number of stores in your area. I've found that generally Kroger has the best overall sales prices, Aldi's has the best "regular" prices, and Walmart will price match (but I never have the time to make this effort worthwhile). Your choices may need include criteria such as, is it near a bus stop, how far away, is it on my way to/from work.
- Once you've decided on your grocery store, spend some time in advance to make sure you count every penny. Scour the grocery store advertisement for sale prices on staples or rock bottom prices even on things you wouldn't normally buy. Download any coupons from the store's website that may apply (even if you aren't 100% sure you will use them). Check for downloadable coupons that may combine with sales to make name brand items more affordable. Generally we don't buy a lot of name brand items, but there are times that combining sales and coupons can bring the price down to less than the generic equivalent (for example, I just bought Lucky Charms for $0.99 this past week).
- Continue your meal list. Hopefully, you've already been able to come up with at least one or two meals or snacks from your fridge and pantry. You may have needed to add one or two ingredients to your list in order to make those meals. Using your downloaded coupons and store flyer, take the time to come up with some additional meals that will last for a week. Try to only purchase one meat (for example, if you can get chicken thighs for $0.69 per pound, you may consider buying that as your meat this week, and using it for multiple meals: i.e. baked chicken, chicken & dumplings, chicken salad sandwiches. Be sure when you're planning your meals to avoid meals that have meat as the primary ingredient or several unusual items not already on hand.
- Once you have a meal list - make a shopping list, being sure that you're using all your pantry items and buying as few items as possible. If you truly only have $20-$30 to spend for a family of 4 for a week, you may need to make a trip to your local food bank first, if you don't have a well-stocked pantry.
- Things to go without if you're on an emergency food budget - besides the obvious alcohol and cigarettes. Also avoid paying for drinks (milk is okay, as you may need it to bake with but buy as little as possible), candy, coffee/tea, and ignore every impulse buy.
- Some good choices for meals other than what's in your pantry - oatmeal, baking potatoes, flour, rice, beans, peanut butter, eggs, cheese.
- Other tips for the store - Start in produce: check your store's damaged produce area first, you may find a bag of apples for $0.99 or half price bananas (perfect for a recipe called Banana Banana Bread). Next - go to the meat section, check for any discounted meat, if none, then purchase the best sale price meat you can. The bread section is next, check for discounted bread as well. In frozen foods, only buy if the discount is steep, except for generic brand frozen veggies if you were unable to find fresh veggies on sale. In the dairy department, aim for the store brand cheese, low cost stick margarine (usually 0.79 per pound at my local store) and grab a gallon of milk. Scan the rest of the aisles primarily for steeply discounted items (such as the Lucky Charms I mentioned earlier).
What would I buy if I only had $30? Well, it would depend somewhat on my pantry and the sale prices. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that I had a marginally stocked pantry with 1/4 bag of flour (5 cups) and sugar (~2 cups), a few tablespoons of baking powder, a stick and a half of margarine, basic condiments, basic spices, and a half a box of noodles. Most people have more than this in their pantry, so I'm just trying to be realistic. Most of these are non-sale price items at my local Kroger.
- 1 bag discounted apples (4) - $0.99
- 1 head romaine lettuce - $0.99
- 1 gallon milk - $2.80
- 1 pound whole grain rice - $1.79
- 1 container generic oatmeal - $1.79
- Chicken thighs (0.69/lb sale price) - 8 lbs = $5.52
- frozen veggies - 2 bags total - $2.50
- 1 bag of dried beans - $1.29
- 1 jar peanut butter - $1.50
- Clearance bread - $0.69
- Sale price whole grain bread - $2.00
- Eggs - $2.79 / dozen
- Cheddar cheese - $4 per lb.
What could I make with these (less than $30) and my "pantry" items?
- Chicken and homemade dumplings (2 lbs w/ leftovers for another meal)
- Baking Powder Biscuits
- Salad (as a side with several meals)
- Chicken salad sandwiches (1 lb for 4 people)
- Beans and rice
- Vegetarian Spaghetti (noodles, cheese, and veggies)
- Chicken stir fry (2 lbs) w/ veggies and rice (w/ leftovers for another meal)
- Egg and cheese sandwiches for lunch
- Oatmeal, pancakes, rice & milk, or buttered toast for breakfasts
- Sliced apples w/ peanut butter for snacks (1/2 apple per person = 2 snacks for family of 4)
- Rice, veggies and cheese
- Grilled cheese sandwiches
- Chicken and beans stir fry (1 lb chicken)
- French toast
- Oatmeal baked chicken (2 lbs)
- Refried bean sandwiches
- Peanut butter sandwiches
This should last a family of two adults and two young kids for a week. Drink water, stay warm, and fix whatever caused the emergency in your budget.
This may seem like it's not doable (and if you don't have anything at all in your pantry, or have hungry teenagers or work physically demanding jobs, it may not be). However, there have been several times that we have only spent $45 without even planning at the grocery store, because we've been trying to eat what's in our pantry (and that includes the fact that I have a very picky eater due to sensory issues). We just had a "huge" shopping trip last week where we bought a number of stock up items, and did a "mega event" sale 4 times (24 items) and we came in just under $100 (including my husband buying 3 12-packs of soda plus several 2 liters). So it is definitely doable, you just may not be eating exactly what you wanted to until your emergency situation resolves itself. If you truly are in an emergency situation, please also contact your local church or community resources and take advantage of the local food bank or other resources available. When you're back on your feet, make a donation to "pay them back". That's what community is all about.